Vellum, by Hal Duncan

A Saturday Afternoon, August 1437. A young lad and his younger sister listen at the door of their cottage in the forests of what will some day be called Southern Germany. Their father is a poor woodcutter and sometime joiner. Their larder is never full at the best of times and its barrenness is a constant beginning and ending point for arguments between their father and stepmother.

The boy crouches on the stoop, all muscles tense. He is locked in place but ready to sprint if the door should open. The voices inside spiral up in volume, and the boy makes a decision. He understands that the moment for action has arrived.

"Come along, Gretel," Hansel says. "We will go play in the forest."

A Saturday Night, August 1894. A girl leads a boy as they run through the forest. The wooded slopes of the American Appalachians are never easy footing in full daylight. At night the path is treacherous. Roots spring into being across small ravines and grab at the boy's feet. He falls and cries out to his older cousin.

She stops her flight and returns. They are both panting. Now that the world has stopped moving, she can see that it is much too dark to see properly. There may be a full moon, but it makes precious little difference under the heavy tree-cover.

"It is so late! We must find shelter and rest, Hank," Greta tells her cousin as he climbs to his feet.

"How 'bout over there?" Hank points to a nearby clearing. Was that there before? Greta can't remember. The moonlight sparkles on a beautiful small house. It is brightly painted, especially along the gingerbread trim.

"I'm not so sure," she starts, but Hank is already marching to the cottage. Witch or no witch, he wants to lay down.

A Sunday Morning, August 2005. There is a knock on my door. I open it to find Prasad and Neil (or is it Gary? Why can't I remember this kid's name?) on my doorstep. These weans are imaginary denizens of my neighborhood. And they aren't following their script.

"What are you doing here?" I ask. "You're supposed to be knocking on the next door up."

Prasad adjusts his tie, then his glasses, and shoots his cuffs preparing to answer me. Paul simply plows right through into the living room.

"Your neighbor is not a witch," Prasad explains to me, with that tone he uses. You know the one I mean: you probably use it to explain things to your cat. It's the tone that stresses how hard it is to find single syllable words for every single conversation. "She has some, erm, troubles with her mind, certainly, but it has been the way of many generations to abuse the mentally ill."

Now that I think about it, it's really more the tone the cat would use to explain things to you.

1437. "She's just a lonely old woman," Hansel reassures Gretel with a whisper. Gretel is not reassured, but she puts on a brave face for Hansel's benefit. Older brothers need to believe they know what they're doing.

"Would you like something to eat, my pretties?" calls the gingerbread cottage's occupant. "Come along into the kitchen, why don't you?"

2005. My conversation with (lecture from?) Prasad is interrupted by a crash from the kitchen. This is quickly followed by a short, high-pitched "Ooops!" So we run into the kitchen. It is a dire mess: all the cabinets open, spice jars and boxes everywhere. Lawrence is rooting through the cupboard closest to the refrigerator.

He is coated in flour.

"I knocked over your flour box," he says. "Sorry."

"What in the name of all that is holy and just are you doing?" I ask, reasonably.

"Where is your food coloring?" Prasad asks as he joins Mike's search.

"Food coloring? Whatever for?" I try to sweep up spilled Splenda with my hands. Prasad hands me an orange book. I look at it with horror. "You haven't been reading this, have you?"

Don't get me wrong. Vellum is a wonderful book. Quite a recipe: Take a little James Joyce, fold in a glop of Perez-Reverte and dust in a little nanotech. It's only that I would have thought it was a bit adult for these wee lads.

I'm often wrong in this area, to be completely honest.

"Don't worry," Prasad pats my elbow reassuringly. "Although he starts off at 1.27 'F-words' per page, by the middle of the book he's down to .42 per page, or so."

1894. There is a cave behind the house. Hank and Greta peer inside nervously. It's awfully dark, and a cool breeze emerges from the yawning mouth to caress their cheeks. Hank shivers.

"I guess we'd better get on with it," he says. The old man whose home they had found had offered them food. When he realized his cupboard was bare, he asked Hank and Greta to fetch provisions from his root cellar.

"I fancy it as a 'root cellar'," the old man had wheezed at them. "But it's really just a small hole in the hill out back."

"Quite a big hole," mutters Greta in the dark.

"But he said not to worry," responds Hank. He holds up a bird cage. "As long as this bird is happy, we'll be fine, he said."

"What's that?" Greta interrupts.

2005. "That's called Irn Bru," I say and move the fluorescent orange bottles out of his reach. "We'd use that for Snow White or something else with poison. This is the Hansel & Gretel story. Why do you want food coloring?"

"It's a little idea we got from Vellum," Duncan explains. I don't like the sound of that at all. I'm starting to worry these kids are in over their heads. All I can think is, what will the Brunette say if I let these kids tattoo themselves with food coloring?

"If you think I'm going to --" I start.

"Oh," interrupts Prasad. "What about bread crumbs?"

"I, uh." They stare at me for a second while I flounder for a word. Luckily, Richard's mobile phone rings. It's his mother. I'm saved. Thank you, thank you.

"Ok, mom," says Al (or is it Hal?) eventually. "C'mon Prasad, maybe we'll try to make paper and ink some other time."

0 thoughtful messages from friendly readers: